Essay on the Role of Faith in the Music of G. F. Handel

George Frideric Handel is often regarded to be the most influential composer of the Baroque era. This remarkable composer was born in Germany, though for the most part of his life lived in England where he also became a subject of the British Crown. Many may not know this, but George Frideric Handel had a strong influence on the emergence and then work of such well-known composers as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Furthermore, his work helped accelerating the transition from the Baroque era to the Classical era.

In my essay I would like to talk about one of the central themes in the life and work of George Frideric Handel, that is the topic of faith. The essay will be structured in the following way. To begin with I would like to introduce the reader to Handel’s style and most prominent works. Then, I would like to talk about his most famous piece is the Messiah that is an oratorio set to texts from the King James Bible. After talking about the piece I would try to further trace the connection of Handel’s faith and work. Finally, I will compare the styles and attitudes to faith of Handel and his famous counterpart Johan Sebastian Bach.

In the early 1700s Handel moved to Hamburg, Germany, accepting a position of a violinist in the orchestra of the opera-house. While working at the orchestra he composed his first two operas, Almira and Nero. During the years 1707-1709 Handel traveled and studied in Italy, there he started to work as a composer of sacred music. When living in Italy Handel produced such operatic pieces as Dixit Dominus, Rodrigo, Agrippina. His two famous oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were also produced in Italy in that period of time (Aileen, Hofestadt, 2005, pp. 140-141).

George Frideric Handel has provided the world with many masterpieces. Handel wrote four anthems for the coronation ceremony of George II of Great Britain, he was also Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, who later became George I of Great Britain. All in all Handel’s compositions include around fifty operas, twenty-three oratorios, and a large amount of church music, as well as instrumental pieces (Aileen, Hofestadt, 2005, pp. 142-143). In the early 1740s he composed religious oratorios that would later bring him fame and distinguish the topic of faith in his works. Centuries later, these oratorios are still performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn religious occasions. The most prominent oratorios written in that period of time include Esther (1718); Athalia (1733); Saul (1739); Israel in Egypt (1739); Messiah (1742); Samson (1743); Judas Maccabaeus (1747); King Solomon (1748), and Jephtha (1752). At the time these masterworks came out they were regarded as blasphemous and profane because first of all they were based on the Bible and yet performed in the theatre. Though, even at that time there were those that appreciated Handel’s creations, still the church continued to disapprove.

Now, having provided the reader with some background information about George Frideric Handel’s works, I would like to turn to his mostly influential piece – the Messiah. This piece was completed under very interesting circumstances. In 1741 Handel was at his lowest, suffering from the attacks of the clergy, then a group of Dublin charities offered Handel to compose a new work for a benefit performance to free men from debtor’s prison. On August 22, 1741, he began composing Messiah, it is remarkable that he had managed to complete two hundred sixty pages in less than a month. When he finished writing the piece he said, „I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself” (George Frideric Handel. The Messiah saved his career) . George Frideric Handel died in 1759 and until the time of his death, he conducted thirty performances of Messiah, however, none of them were conducted at Christmastime. This was for the reason that Handel considered Messiah to be a Lenten piece.

There are several opinions about the place faith had set in the life of George Frideric Handel. From one point he seems to be a blasphemous person who always challenged the church with his innovative theatrical pieces. He was not afraid to experiment with scared texts and put the words of such onto music that is why he was disapproved by the clergy and some officials. However, at the same time, one can not help but notice that George Frideric Handel, in fact, was a very spiritual individual, who sought God and was trying to reach him in the way he found possible – through his music. What is interesting is that most of Handel’s opera and oratorios are based on Biblical or religious stories. Thus, this shows us that Handel was always trying to connect to God, though he does not tell a story in conventional terms and is therefore unlike almost all other baroque oratorios, sufficiently demonstrates his abilities as an operatic composer.

I believe that Handel’s works are so extraordinary versatile because they were received by Handel though the living faith. By this I mean that he was able to receive inspiration for his pieces from God through the Holy Spirit. George Frideric Handel was a person of great character and personal qualities. He was a person who cared for the wellbeing and enlightenment of the people around him. Furthermore, he wanted to use his music not simply to provide the listeners with a way to pass their time, and not to have them enjoy themselves listening to the waves of different music. He was eager to bring something else to the world, he wanted his music to „better” the people. With his music he wanted people to become closer to the Creator the way he himself was. This shows the extent and quality of faith Handel possessed. Though, at the same time it cannot be denied that in his oratorios Handel was also aiming for them to be heard by people merely on the basis of the dramatic attributes of the art form. Thus, we see that not only Handel created his pieces on the basis of desire to „better”, but also with an intention to provoke a pensive reaction.

This strong eagerness to find God, and to raise the souls of other to the higher level can be explained by the environment George Fredric Handel was brought up in. He was born into the heart of Lutheranism in the Central Germany. The town where he was born was only a little over one hundred miles away from the church at Wittenberg where Martin Luther started the protestant reformation. It is natural that being so close to the centre of Lutheranism, Handel’s town was also very religious. Additionally, Handel’s town was populated by pietists, from whom young Handel has learnt a lot about. Thus, we see that Handel was surrounded by religion since a very early age, that lead him to develop a strong sense of faith that latter was revealed in his musical works (Van Til, 2007, p 1-4).

It came to be so that several classical masters are always pared together, an example of this is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. When it comes to George Frederic Handel he is usually pared with Johan Sebastian Bach, because these two great composers were born around the same time, and both had made a create contribution to the classical music. These two composers have much in common, though in my essay I would like to mention the differences that are at least as enlightening as are the points of comparison. Both Bach and Handel were masters of the Italian and French styles – partly because these styles were the prevailing ones in the Baroque era, however, the two have used these styles differently. Handel even in his earliest pieces showed a tendency towards using the traits of dramatic and emotional world of the Italian opera spicing it with French style. On the contrary, Bach tried to create a personal synthesis of the two styles, though keeping the German counterpoint. The two supreme composers also took a bit different perspective when it came to religiosity. In Bach’s works one may feel the deep and profound religiosity that is the result of a restless, all-consuming and exhausting self-questioning and self-examination. Though, when it comes to Handel we may see that he is less troubled by the self-analyses and more peaceful with himself and the outside world. The two composers take a different approach to faith, though both of them do not doubt the givens of it (Williams, 1985, p. 230)

In conclusion I would like to say that without a shadow of doubt faith has played a great role in the formation of Handel’s character and then later in his work. The Godly traits Handel had and the inspiration he was said to receive from God has made his works powerful and harmonic. When listening to his operas or oratorios one hears the power and surety of his music, as well as unparalleled richness and solidity. George Frideric Handel’s music is often ambiguous and uprising, though much of the greatest art usually is. Though, not only Handel’s works are surprising, but they are also breathtaking.

References

  1. Aileen, K. A., Hofestadt, B. 2005. Georg Handel (1622-97): The Barber-Surgeon Father of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Journal of Medical Biography 13(3) (August): 140-144.
  2. Williams, P. 1985. Bach, Handel, Scarlatti 1685-1985. Cambridge University Press. p. 230.
  3. George Frideric Handel. The Messiah saved his career. Today’s Christian, 2001. Available from the Internet http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/peopleoffaith/spiritualgiants/9.15.html?start=2 accessed April 1, 2009.
  4. Van Til, 2007. George Frideric Handel : A Music Lover’s Guide to His Life, His Faith & the Development of Messiah & His Other Oratorios. WordPower Publishing p 1-4